My crash course in distance education (during the coronavirus lockdown)

Online teaching conceptual image

In what seems like much longer, just a couple months ago, in early-March, students in my A&P class were buzzing about what was going to happen if the coronavirus made landfall in San Diego.

“Are we still going to have class after spring break?”
“How will we turn in our lab book homework?”
“Are they going to give refunds on parking passes?”

The truth was, I had almost no idea what the answers to any of those questions were. And neither did the college administration, if the flurry of emails hitting my inbox was any indication. Seemed like we all had some figuring-out to do… and faster than we imagined.

Okay, so, I’m not trying to open a political can of worms, but I’ve heard some people argue that there was no way we could have seen this coming. As if the wildfire of spread and resulting death rates across Asia, then the Middle East and Europe, wasn’t the tiniest of clues about what to expect…

Trump and Pence at news conference

But I digress.

We, at the college, did have some inkling there might be a shut-down on the horizon. There were contingency plans circulating; scenarios. Official ones with official-sounding names like Scenario I, Scenario II, all the way up to Scenario V that included preparing for a full closure of the U.S.-Mexico border.

My favorite, looking back to an email that was sent out from the college on March 9th, detailed Scenario III/IV (not sure why the two were lumped together):

Measures to be taken if one student, teacher or staff tests positive for COVID-19 and exposed others on campus, OR if multiple students, teachers or staff members test positive for COVID-19 on a campus.
We will close Southwestern College and only essential services will be operating. This could be a two-week closure.” (Underlining: mine)

Superintendent’s “Things to Know” email – Monday, March 9, 2020

Two weeks, huh? Isn’t that cute?

Well, that was Monday evening. At the moment, we were still at Scenario I, advising all of us to cover our noses/mouths when sneezing and stay at home if we’re sick.

And that was still the scenario on Tuesday evening (3/10) at 5:30. By 8:30 pm, though…

Beginning Monday, March 16 through Friday, March 20, Southwestern College will move all in-person classes to online or distributed instruction.
Southwestern College will follow the following timeline while we continue to monitor the COVID-19 situation throughout San Diego:
* March 16–20: Classes will be held online or through distributed instruction.
* March 23–27: Spring break will occur as scheduled.
* March 30: Face-to-face classes and regular college business will resume. All students and employees should report back to their respective campuses.
We understand there are still many questions and details about college operations still lingering. College leadership will meet tomorrow, Wednesday, March 10 [sic], and provide a more detailed update to the campus community in the afternoon.”

Superintendent’s “[SWC Alert] COVID-19 Update” email – Tuesday, March 10, 2020

I’ll be honest, my first thought was, “Hot damn! Spring break came early!”

Little did I know.

I had a little less than a week to come up with a plan to take everything online. I mean, I’m a pretty resourceful person so I wasn’t too worried. After all, it was only one week’s worth of class to reinvent, right? Right??

The next few days began the real torrent of emails. Massive CC’d lists to/from faculty with ideas about what to do (separate lists for each class I was teaching). BCC’d emails from any number of departments about tentative policies, instructions of what to tell students if they ask about situations A, B or C, best practices for “instructional continuity”, and endless how-to’s for Zoom video conferencing, IT hacks and anything Canvas-related.

Instructional Continuity website at Southwestern College

And then there were the vendors, god love ’em. I’m sure their intentions were good and altruistic, but the offers to try their software for free during “this time of crisis” were causing an even bigger crisis in my inbox. Who had time to read through them all? Let alone sign up for a free account, meet with a virtual representative for a free tour, and spend the time bumbling through the learning curve of a free trial?

My original plan was to do what I thought would be fairly simple. That was, do pretty much what I do in class, but just record it. That way, students could watch the videos at their leisure and then we could spend some quality time on Zoom going over their questions and reviewing.

Students seem to like that “chalk-talk” style more than just following along with a Powerpoint. So, I set up a video camera, hoisted overhead on a tripod, grabbed a stack of scratch paper and scribbled my way through lectures, as I would have done using the class whiteboard.

That worked great. At first. I could crank out two or three lectures at a time, whenever I felt like it. But then I didn’t consider the time it would take to ingest (upload off the video cards), edit the videos, export, compress to sensibly-sized .mp4 files, and then upload them to YouTube (which, in itself, took upwards of an hour each).

And then there were the additional parts of getting videos organized into playlists with appropriate descriptions and then embedding them in Canvas. Overall, I was spending between 10-12 hours a day just preparing videos. (So much for my initial “spring-break-came-early” reaction.) It became clear, especially as word came out that the remainder of the semester would be through distance education, that this method would not be sustainable with the limited number of hours in a day. Nor for my sanity.

The students, admittedly not the majority, gave it a shot, too. My impression was that this wasn’t an ideal way to hold class for them, either. One big indication was that, with 40+ students in one of my classes, the videos I had uploaded to YouTube had only gotten about a dozen views. And the Zoom sessions I had envisioned being an interactive Q&A were more like prolonged meetings with crickets chirping in the background. Adjusting to distance education was not coming easily to anyone.

What was especially sketchy about all of this was figuring out if we were even allowed to conduct class like this. There are guidelines, laws, even, that require all videos used for class to have proper closed-captioning. And, although YouTube does make a valiant attempt at captioning videos, they usually fall a bit short, especially when it comes to, say, anatomical terminology.

One biology professor I spoke with tried, initially, going through and manually fixing the YouTube transcripts for his videos. He quickly threw up his hands after spending three hours editing the typos for just one lecture.

What other options were there, though? The captioning service offered through the college, being suddenly flooded with requests, had a backlog of at least three weeks. I mean, by the time videos would have been available to students, what was the point? The exams would have already passed and we’d be well into the next unit.

So, recording lectures for asynchronous class was, at best, dubious. Yet holding synchronous “real-time” class was being called into question, since students may not have access to a computer or WiFi during scheduled class times. And dropping students for not “attending” class (synchronous or otherwise) was put on indefinite hold. What was left was a narrowly-navigable path to maintain some level of academic integrity and being legally compliant.

I kept reminding myself (and my students), “We’re in ‘survival mode’. Just do what you can.” Emails started coming out from the administration saying pretty much the same thing which could only mean one thing: a lot of other professors were also on the verge of imploding.

Starting anew

Rainbow over clear sky

After a few weeks, things started falling into place. Professors seemed to find their own groove through screen-sharing their lectures real-time in Zoom, or screen-recording them for asynchronous classes, or finding other inventive ways to get by until the end of the semester.

We finally figured out the answers on to how to turn in lab book homework in A&P (thank you, Genius Scan) and whether refunds were going to be issued for parking passes (they weren’t).

For my part, I ended up scrapping pre-recorded lectures and did them all real-time in Zoom meetings. It was the same method of scribbling onto scratch paper with colored markers, but at least now my students could stop me and ask questions or tell me to slow down (as they usually need to do). Oddly enough, doing live lectures on Zoom also seemed to get around the closed-captioning requirement. (I should clarify here that sidestepping the law was not my primary intention. But with the amount of work and time already involved with going online, any little way that helped just get by for the moment was essential.)

I even came up with a janky set-up for my webcam that allowed students an over-the-head view to follow along while I busily lectured and scribbled on my desktop.

Webcam mounted on a tripod over my desk
Zip ties, rubber bands and a little luck holding my webcam contraption together.

Exams were a bit of another sticky issue since there’s really no way to prevent them from being “open book,” let alone “open worldwide web”. There are options within Canvas that reduce the possibility of someone successfully cheating on exams and quizzes. Things like setting time limits, shuffling questions and/or answers, and not revealing results right after submitting an online quiz help slow down students intent on cheating, but certainly don’t stop them.

Take, for example, an exam from my intro biology class that was given right after the lockdown started. There were a handful of short, fill-in-the-blank questions. And several of the answers that were submitted were strangely similar to each other, and strangely-worded. Well, that’s because if the question was copied and pasted into Google, that strangely-worded answer was the very first search result; typically, the one found on Wikipedia (not exactly a pillar of accurate information). At worst, there were answers that were literally copied and pasted into the exam answer blanks complete with the font formatting that showed up on Google. Thanks for the answers, guys, but you really didn’t need to do it in bold italics.

Cartoon of online exam cheater

There is proctoring software that essentially locks students into their web browser and prevents them from switching over to Google or the lecture Powerpoints, for that matter. Some even require students to turn on their webcam while taking the test to make sure they are the one (and only one) taking the exam.

I did discover that Canvas keeps a log of what students are doing from minute to minute during exams: Time 1:14 – Skipped question #7, Time 1:17 – Left Canvas, Time 1:24 – Answered question #9, etc. And one student informed me that one of their instructors gave an automatic ‘F’ if there was any indication they veered away from the exam. But even then, who says they didn’t just pull out their phone to look up answers?

I will say that the percentage of students who not only passed A&P (which normally has a very low passing rate) was higher than I’ve ever seen it, but the average grade in the class was considerably higher, too. Don’t get wrong – it’s always great when students do well in class. But did the exams actually test their knowledge, or just how quickly they can Google the answers?

Moving forward, I imagine we’ll end up finding ways to improve testing efficacy and patching other gaps in distance education. One thing that I, and apparently lots of others, have started doing is checking in with resources like Camp Canvas which offer how-to’s on navigating our learning management system (which is great, now that there’s a little more breathing room to focus on them!)

I’ve also joined the ranks who are getting DEFT (Distance-Education Faculty Training) certified this summer. From what I believe I heard from one of the instructors, there are normally three DEFT sessions during the year. This summer alone there are eight, with another 12 planned for fall semester!

DEFT isn’t exactly a class on how to use Canvas; it sort of assumes you have enough experience already coming into the class. The focus is more on doing distance education RIGHT. That is, making sure everything is compliant with state and district regulations, making sure your online class is built in a way that creates an learning experience as close as possible (if not identical) to an in-person one, and is created in a way that makes logical sense in navigation, communication, and all the other things that are probably taken for granted in an in-person classroom.

Onward and upward. I know that I can not wait to get back to campus and back to our normal classes. In the mean time, though, there’s been a lot learned about distance education on my part. As I gear up for the fall semester, I think (and hope) that things will go much, much more smoothly now that I’ve gotten my feet wet and have some time this summer to take a deep breath and have more than just a week to prepare, like we had this spring!

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